ST. PETERSBURG — Rick Baker's gut feels pretty good about the Tampa Bay Rowdies' chances to become a Major League Soccer franchise playing in front of 18,000 screaming fans in an iconic waterfront stadium.
The region has the nation's 11th largest media market, and the other 10 already have MLS teams. Al Lang stadium's views of the bay and location in a thriving downtown core are selling points. So are the 200 pledges of support from local businesses. Last week's season opener selling out doesn't hurt, either.
But while Baker was long on confidence in a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board on Wednesday, he was short on details about Rowdies' owner Bill Edwards' legal issues and MLS rights to the bay area market.
The Rowdies are seeking voter approval in a May 2 citywide referendum to negotiate a 25-year lease with the city to expand Al Lang Stadium. Talks would only move forward if MLS awards one of four expansion slots to St. Petersburg. The league is expected to announce its decision by the end of this year.
Rowdies owner Bill Edwards is paying the estimated $250,000 cost of the referendum. Leading the campaign is Baker, a former St. Petersburg mayor and president of the Edwards Group, a development and entertainment company.
However, despite Baker's confidence in the Rowdies' MLS hopes, he was less certain about possible pitfalls facing Edwards and his team.
An ongoing federal lawsuit lodged by two whistleblowers accused Edwards of looting millions from his defunct mortgage company. An adverse judgement could cost Edwards hundreds of millions of dollars. Edwards has dismissed the suit as baseless.
Does the lawsuit concern MLS?
Baker said the issues has not been raised "in my presence or not to my knowledge. It may have been that Bill had conversations with them. But I'm not aware of that."
Last year, Florida's first MLS franchise, Orlando City Soccer Club, told the Times that its franchise had territorial rights over the Tampa Bay area.
"The only time I've seen that is in the newspaper," Baker said. "We've talked to (MLS Commissioner) Don Garber about that, we've talked to other officials about that. And Don Garber has — I mean I can show you a video of him speaking — he said he feels that (a Tampa Bay team) would be a great thing."
MLS already requires a $150 million expansion franchise fee on top of the $80 million that Edwards has said he'll pay to expand Al Lang. He has also said the Rowdies won't use or need public financing.
But would the team have to pay Orlando to compensate them for a lost market?
"We have never been told we have to do that," Baker said.
Baker admitted that when it comes to the details of territorial rights and whether the team would have to pay Orlando City for them: "I honestly don't know."
The former mayor has been making the circuit of neighborhood groups to pitch the plan. He said reaction has been positive whenever he has explained that there will be 9,500 parking spots available downtown for Rowdies fans and the team plans to limit noise and lights during games and other events.
Downtown neighborhood associations have been supportive and, so far, no organized opposition to the plan has emerged. At this point, there are no plans for direct mail or other campaign spending for the referendum, Baker said. Mail ballots were sent out earlier this week.
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